By Eiichi Yoshimura
Nearly a quarter-century ago, Ryuichi Sakamoto introduced Music on Internet, a paper presented at the Internet Conference ’97 in Yokohama, with a prescient prediction for music at the dawn of the Internet age:
“To date, musicians have primarily relied on CDs, concerts, and the mass media (TV etc.) to reach the ears of listeners. However, it seems likely that these conventional distribution channels will be superseded by the Internet in the near future, considering the Internet’s convenience as well as its infinite potential for application in live performance settings. Moreover, there is a possibility that the Internet will engender new paradigms in music that are unimaginable at the present juncture. Throughout history, music has constantly evolved in response to technology. Contact with new technologies has invariably altered the styles, meanings/contexts, and expressive palettes available to musicians. As the Internet continues to metamorphize with each passing day, it is poised to have a significant impact on not only the enjoyment of music, but also on modes of expression and contextual meaning in music.”
Even a cursory glance back at this time period shows that Sakamoto was very much ahead of the Internet curve.
In 1995, he appeared in the world’s first concert to be live-streamed in
real-time via IP multicast.
(Although the Rolling Stones made their own streaming debut the previous year, their broadcast was not technically a live performance, but rather a 20-minute video created from prerecorded footage.)
In 1997, he staged a number of experimental projects that fostered interaction between performers and listeners over the Internet.
And in a 1998 opinion piece for the Asahi Shimbun calling for an end to Japan’s monopolistic music copyright practices, Sakamoto wrote:
“The Internet is a prime example of the rapid diversification of copyright channels that we can expect in the years to come. But JASRAC’s grip on copyright has precluded the accommodation of these new platforms. Royalty rates are still insufficient, and the system is not equipped to flexibly meet the additional service demands of users. The present rubric inhibits the freedom to define distribution units and the freedom to set prices attuned to the value of the work itself, even when distributing said work via novel mediums such as the Internet. As future technological advances give rise to ever more diverse new services, practical implementation is bound to become a stumbling block.”
From the late ‘90s to the early aughts, Sakamoto continued to campaign for fair copyright terms and artist rights in the Internet age with an emphasis on the convenience of Internet users and music fans, ultimately testifying directly before the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Copyright Council.
Sakamoto has championed the copyright question since the 1980s. After all, his own lifetime has spanned the liminal shift from live performances to TV/radio broadcasts, to records/CDs, and now the Internet. As a musician, he has actively sought to reconcile these new mediums and experimented copiously to that end.
To wit, there was the time he conducted the world’s first pay-per-view live-streamed concert. Or the time he enlisted more than 20 artists to participate in a “chain-music project” in the wake of 9/11.
From 2009 to 2011, he made recordings of his live concerts available for download the very next day on the iTunes Store.
After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, he launched the “Kizuna World” charity project, with an international roster of musicians who raised donations for the post-disaster recovery efforts.
Fast-forward to 2021. The year of the NFT, or the “non-fungible token.”
A token is essentially digital data. Each token is assigned its own serial number, which serve as proof that the data is unique. The transaction history of tokens can be stored on the blockchain, thereby verifying their authenticity. In the fine art world, it would be akin to having an airtight provenance, documenting every time a painting changed hands from the artist to the present collector.
NFTs also have ramifications for how artists are compensated for their work. In the conventional art world, artists have only been paid at the first point of sale. In the past, an artist might sell their work for $100, only for it to be resold for $1,000, then again for $10,000, etc. Yet the artist would never see a cent of this exponential upsell.
NFTs make it possible to give the artist a percentage of future royalties each time their artwork trades hands, ensuring that coveted work is compensated fairly.
These qualities have proved attractive to artists and musicians, who have flocked to NFTs in recent years, in some cases making headlines with exorbitant auction prices.
Of course, the meteoric rise of NFTs has led some critics to cast doubt on the technology’s tenability. Brian Eno trended last month for his categorical rebuke of NFTs during an interview on “The Crypto Syllabus” website.
It also takes an enormous amount of computing power to maintain NFTs on the blockchain, which is indeed problematic from the perspective of energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
An environmental activist since the early ‘90s, Sakamoto has over the decades been uniquely committed to reducing his own environmental footprint as a performing artist.
Since 1994, nearly all of his albums have featured eco-friendly paper packaging. In 2001, he deployed solar panels during a concert tour, meeting 15% of the performance’s energy needs with renewable energy.
In 2005, he completed two 100% carbon-free tours (Japan Tour 2005 and Playing the Piano /05.) A few years later, he transitioned his own home in New York to 100% wind power.
In 2007, he established “more trees”, a conservation program that works to plant new trees and also rehabilitate neglected forests. In 2008, he announced that “more trees” would provide carbon offsets for all the operational energy demands and releases from his record label “commmons,” making it Japan’s first green label.
The following year, he not only offset CO2 emissions during his Playing the Piano Japan 2009 tour but upped the ante by including a 1kg carbon offset for each ticket sold.
These eco-conscious initiatives have remained an integral element of Sakamoto’s concerts and album releases to this day: All the greenhouse gasses emitted from the primary sale of NFTs in the 595 NFTs project will be calculated, publicly announced, and offset.
Nonetheless, at the project’s launch, Sakamoto became the target of pointed criticism from incredulous followers who saw the project as an uncharacteristic capitulation to capitalism.
Sakamoto has worked for decades to challenge our received notions of copyright and ownership. As an extension, the 595 NFTs project was an experiment that sought to probe the potential of harnessing NFTs for the benefit of artists and fans/listeners alike. Coming full circle, the project was the manifestation of precisely the sort of “[previously unimaginable] new paradigms in music” that he alluded to all the way back in 1997.
I imagine NFTs may have even represented to Sakamoto the fruition of a dream he has harbored since the 1980s when the proliferation of CDs promised to usher in an era of digitization that would enable all artists to manage their own copyright, distribution, traceability, and finances in a more direct and fair way.
Of course, the 595 NFTs project could, with the benefit of hindsight, have been implemented more smoothly and with a greater articulation of the project’s goals to assuage concerns.
Kenji Saito, a cryptocurrency expert who has authored multiple books on Bitcoin and the blockchain, diagnosed a few pivotal issues raised by the project — for example, the predation of counterfeiters.
Saito recognized that at the time of purchase, each token existed on Adam byGMO’s proprietary platform. In order to claim their NFT on the Ethereum blockchain, buyers needed to pay a network processing fee and a “withdrawal” fee of 0.05ETH (approximately ¥18,000 as of January 18th, 2022.) This “withdrawal” fee was payable to Adam byGMO and covered the “gas” fee charged by the Ethereum network to execute the smart contract to mint the NFT. However, this step was not clearly articulated on the project page. Moreover, Adam byGMO’s platform is currently set up to freeze accounts after an extended period of inactivity. Although this issue is slated to be patched, it meant that users could effectively become unable to access their tokens. After learning of this vulnerability, genuine Contract Addresses and Token IDs were expediently provided on the project site, along with guidance on how to spot fakes.
A more detailed analysis of counterfeiting and other potential concerns pertaining to NFTs can be found in the essay linked below.
Kenji Saito — Professor, Graduate School of Business and Finance, Waseda University
The NFT project was met with a considerable amount of pushback on social media, particularly from English-speaking users.
In a new essay, former Editor-in-Chief of WIRED Japan and cofounder of blkswn publishers Kei Wakabayashi seeks to pinpoint the cause of this discord while envisioning a more amicable relationship between artists and NFTs.
Kei Wakabayashi — Editor
Ryuichi Sakamoto provided the following statement that reflects upon the 595 NFTs project’s conclusion:
Music was one of the first art forms to embrace the digital age.
By the early 1980s, CDs had begun to enter the mainstream, and digital equipment already featured prominently in the studios where I was recording at the time.
Of course, digital technology cannot capture the tangible hallmarks of the other fine arts such as painting and sculpture, where the artistry resides in the physical object itself.
As music is essentially the vibration of air in physical space, you could argue that music also has a physical quality that precludes digitization.
But this would discount music’s long history as a conduit for new mediums. The invention of printing technology produced sheet music to distribute widely, and radio was followed by the proliferation of vinyl, which was in turn superseded by cassettes. As times changed, it was inevitable that music would make the leap to digital.
Music needs a medium to reach the listener, and the advent of the Internet gave music unprecedented reach.
But as the next fertile frontier, the Internet could not evade the hungry eye of capitalism, starved for new markets. In recent years, it seems the Internet has completed its commercial transformation — it was only a matter of time before webspace would be used for the digital trade of data and cryptocurrency.
NFTs have become the latest buzzword to emerge from this milieu, providing a welcome opportunity to reconsider the concept of “ownership.”
Although the tangibility of a painting cannot be digitized, the rights to own that painting can exist as 0’s and 1’s. The same principle applies to music.
Intrigued by the potential of NFTs, I hoped to experiment with this new technology by creating a listing of my own.
In order to make an NFT, you need content. I first thought of listing a handwritten score from one of my compositions. But I felt a physical score alone wouldn’t be a very original use of this new medium. After giving it some more thought, I arrived at the 595 NFTs project, which isolated each individual note from the melody to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”
Unfortunately, the experiment was met with considerable backlash on social media. To my dismay, the project also attracted considerable attention from investors more interested in money than music. I certainly did not expect that my music would become an object of financial speculation.
Similar to how each individual note in a composition comes together to create a greater whole, I imagined that digitized notes could bring each individual NFT holder together as part of a larger and more harmonious community.
But it seems the digital market is not the place for poesy.
Will NFTs provide a true community for creators and collectors? Or will they end up as merely another gamble in unbridled financial speculation?
The answer remains to be seen.
For the sake of full disclosure, I personally purchased one of the 595 NFTs. I think my motivations were similar to those of many others who participated in the project. NFTs have become a global buzzword, and I was curious to see what all the excitement was about. I also wanted to hear the recording of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – 2021,” which would only be made available to NFT purchasers. Although the project did, of course, garner plenty of positive feedback, it also ended up shining an unexpected light on some of the more problematic aspects of NFTs. After reading Kenji Saito’s essay, I became more aware of the complexities lurking beneath the surface of what had appeared to be a light-hearted project.
Now that the project has come to a close, I’ve been thinking about how to best use my NFT. I certainly don’t intend to part with my note, even if I could resell it for a profit. As Sakamoto suggested, the creation of a harmonious global community of fans would be a fantastic outcome of the project. But what might such a community look like in practice?
Although it might be unrealistic to enlist the participation of 500+ NFT owners, I think it would still be fun to create micro-communities hosted somewhere in the metaverse. For example, if NFT owners set their individual notes as a sort of avatar or icon, they could then be located by the owners of the adjoining notes, resulting in groups that could meet to reconstitute each bar in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” (Incidentally, if any other NFT owners are reading, I bought a note from the 16th bar!)
CO2 generated by the 595 NFTs project has been offset in collaboration with “more trees” and “blue dot green Inc.” Click here for more detail about these carbon offset credits.
Ryuichi Sakamoto donated all royalties personally received from the 595 NFTs project to the following charitable organizations:
Médecins Sans Frontières
Peshawar-kai, Peace Japan Medical Services http://www.peshawar-pms.com/index_pesha.html
Greenpeace Japan https://bit.ly/3ty0BOT
KIKO NET WORK https://www.kikonet.org/?cat=54
Iwaki Citizens’ Radiation Measurement Center – TARACHINE https://tarachineiwaki.org/english
Donation for Tonga eruption of January 2022 https://www.jrc.or.jp/contribute/help/tonga/